One of the more interesting names in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system is right-hander Cody Ponce. The big question about him? Is his home the rotation or bullpen?
At the 2019 July trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates were sitting at 47-61. They were clearly going to be sellers at the deadline, and so, with that, they traded right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles to the Milwaukee Brewers. For a guy on a cheap one year deal, and an ERA above 5 (5.36), the Pirates were able to retrieve a solid prospect in return.
It was a one for one swap that saw the Brewers acquire Lyles and the Pirates receive right hander Cody Ponce in return. Ponce was drafted by the Brew Crew in the second round of the 2015 draft. He was originally a starting pitching prospect, and was pretty good through the low minors. He ranked as the team’s 20th best prospect at the end of 2017.
However, after struggling as a starter in Double-A, the team moved the righty to the bullpen. Ponce becoming a relief pitcher in 2019 seemed to have worked out for the prospect. Through 38.1 innings Ponce had a 3.29 ERA, 2.59 FIP, and 1.17 WHIP. He saw his strikeout rate jump through the roof, recording a career high 10.3 K/9. He also was a master of control with just a 2.8 BB/9 and 0.2 HR/9.
When Ponce arrived in the Pirates’ farm, the Bucs put him with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and returned him to the rotation. Unsurprisingly, he struggled giving up 11 earned runs and four home runs in 18.2 innings.
However, Ponce did well in the Arizona Fall League as a starter. In 23 innings, Ponce produced a 2.53 ERA, 2.33 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. He saw most of his peripherals move in the right direction (10.6 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9), but he has given up a worrisome 10.2 hits/9.
Ponce’s best pitches are his fastball and cutter. FanGraphs gives his fastball a 60 grade, while his cutter is given a 55 grade, with a future grade of 60. He does have a curveball, and change up, but he isn’t nearly as effective with them. His curve is grades out at 50, while his change up is just 45.
Ponce is currently 13th on the Pirates depth chart for relief pitchers, just above minor league signee Hector Noesi and one below Dovydas Neverauskas. He should make his Major League debut this season. As to where he makes his debut, it is still up in the air.
Based on his profile, he is a two pitch pitcher who would probably struggle out of the rotation. However, based on his performance in the Arizona Fall League, he might be able to serve as a solid back-end rotation piece. Right now, I see him being a future set-up man, or even closer. His fastball/cutter combo could make a deadly 1-2 punch. However, if he can improve upon his curveball and, more importantly, his change up, Ponce could see himself in the rotation as something more than a back end 5th starter, or serve as a utility pitcher, meaning coming from the bullpen late into games, and occasionally starting them here and there.